Harnessing Nature to Heal

The phenomena that is biophilic design, is one of many sensory design tools. An innovative and rapidly growing method of designing the spaces within which we live, work, learn, play and heal, the benefits of biophilia can be harnessed nature to promote wellbeing.

Edward Wilson, a Harvard, PhD, Biologist, first used the term in 1993 in his book – “The Biophilic Hypothesis” – to describe the genetic predisposition humans have towards nature. In 2006, Wilson stated that the most significant positive effects of biophilia could be seen in healthcare applications to ameliorate emotional and physical health. Benefits from biophilia have also been seen in the urban environment. Clearly, physical environments have a fundamental and pivotal impact on successful patient treatment, recovery and ultimate outcomes. Key elements attributed to biophilic design are light, spatial permeability, sensory engagement, liminal spaces, organic shapes and forms, natural processes and patterns such as fractal geometry.

An understanding of individual patient profiles and departments from neonates to the elderly, cardiology to oncology, rehabilitation to occupational therapy, radiology to emergency services is essential to calibrate appropriate design interventions.  New research supports measurable and positive impacts on reduced morbidity and health outcomes.

Though biophilic design offers attractive solutions it does come with a health warning. There may be issues concerning biophobias and bio-mimicry that can engender anxiety and confusion amongst sensitive patient groups found in mental health.  Remarkably, new research indicates that biophilia per se is an antidote to biophobia.  It is known that ‘nature deficit order’ alone equates to increased emotional and physical illness, reduces sensory engagement and attention difficulties.

However, recent research continues to provide compelling evidence of our inextricable, symbiotic, 24/7 dialogue with nature such as the recently discovered “photo sensitive ganglion cells impacting on circadian physiology” and “Calendar Cells producing Winter/Summer hormones”. Since the original publication of Wilson’s Biophilia Hypothesis, biophilic design has been applied to many healthcare settings. Indeed presently there is talk of it becoming a Design Standard with links to sustainable outcomes and LEED Certification.

Today there is an ever increasing focus on wellbeing and wellness within the community.  We are entering into the Third Era of Health where we are living longer than ever before.  The healthcare focus is more on prevention rather than care.  Armed with new technologies, augmenting evidence based research and new design tools such as biophilic design, designers are now able to create and choreograph spaces that can truly heal and prolong life.

Richard Mazuch

Richard is an Architect and Director of Design Research & Innovation in the UK. A healthcare design specialist he has collaborated with the Design Council, Government Treasury Task Force, Department of Health, NHS, Kings Fund and Princes’ Foundation within Expert Working Groups as consultant, advisor, speaker and author of healthcare design guidelines He gains great satisfaction from translating holistic ideas into radical but pragmatic solutions. In his own words: “It is a bit like nailing jelly to a wall. When you achieve’s so satisfying!” He thoroughly enjoys gastronomic adventures accompanied with good wine and good company.

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